Bringing Hope & Light to a Dark World

Others, Stories , Trafficking

Contributed by: Ratanak International



Architects, designers and decorators think about how a space will feel, what it will communicate, and how it will impact those who inhabit it. We all have experienced spaces that communicate comfort and joy. We have also all felt spaces that were oppressive, perhaps even evil. Spaces of fear and oppression rarely collide with spaces of security and comfort. They are mutually exclusive. 

Over 30 years ago, I remember being ushered into a small reception room at an old school in Phnom Penh. I was there to meet with communist government officials and ask permission to tour the facility. 

Permission was granted, and I entered the school known as S-21. This was no normal school. It had been converted into a torture centre operated by the previous regime. The current government was preserving it as proof of Khmer Rouge atrocities during the genocide. I was not prepared for the experience. 

Row upon row of tiny makeshift holding cells had been built to repurpose many of the former classrooms. Other classrooms were emptied out of their desks and chairs and set aside to be used for interrogations. Each interrogation room had a single bed frame, to which the prisoners had been chained. Tufts of hair lay in the corners of rooms with blood-splattered ceilings. Rusting filing cabinets spilled documents on the floors along with Khmer Rouge uniforms and the clothing of their victims. Several skulls and bones could be seen under the clothing and cobwebs.

The sense of evil was overwhelming. Thousands of people had died horribly in this place. To visit was unpleasant but necessary. It was a rare privilege to witness such darkness and the suffering of a people. I remember thinking about how isolated I felt and how far away normal life felt. How could any hope ever be seen in such a dark space?

Fast forward to 2023 and another Cambodian space—our Ratanak van. With nicely padded seats, air conditioning, and window shades for privacy, it’s a really comfortable environment. But, more than other vans, this one creates a special space for safety. 

This is the van that picks up traumatized young people at the airport as they return from slavery; this is the van that takes them home to be reunited with their families after years of torment; this is the van where life-giving trauma therapy is undertaken in villages where survivors have no private and secure places to share their burdens. It’s a space that brings tenderness, encouragement, recovery, and safety. But above all, to me, it represents freedom… Our mobile space of light and hope.

Recently, I happened to take that van down to S-21. It’s now a museum visited by thousands. I have been there many times, and it has become a familiar place to me. We stopped outside the complex, and I entered with other Ratanak staff from Canada. We toured the interrogation rooms, and it was all quite routine for me until I saw our van. Our driver had moved it from where he had dropped us off and it was now parked inside the S-21 complex. A symbol of light, safety and freedom was right in the centre of this place of darkness, not four feet from a torture cell.

Memories came flooding back and I was suddenly overcome with emotion. 33 years ago, I could not have conceived of anything like light or hope entering the overwhelming darkness of S-21. But there it was, the Ratanak van representing hope, freedom and restoration. It had not just driven past this place of oppression and evil, it was parked smack in the middle of it. The symbolism was not lost on me!

Decades-old dreams and prayers that felt so hopeless have been answered. With the Lord’s blessing and your dedicated support, we have not just approached the evil of oppression and slavery… we have driven into the middle of it, and we have parked! I just love the imagery of Ratanak parking hope in the centre of the dark world of slavery. It brings me great joy, as I hope it does for you.

– Brian McConaghy, Founding Director

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*Cover photo: Image of models used to protect the identities of those in our care